In an alternate present, the world is suffering from overpopulation, impending climate doom, and other man-made disasters including depletion of the earth’s resources. A scientist comes up with a solution that at least may slow the disaster down: Humans are taking up too much space, consuming too much, and creating so much waste. Why not shrink us all down?
Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are everyday folks who think “going small” is an intriguing idea. They can’t afford a bigger house in their current world, but if they go small, their money will convert, making them millionaires. Have you always dreamed of a tiny house? Why not make that tiny house a mansion?
But as Paul goes small (and Audrey chickens out, leaving him), Paul finds that being tiny doesn’t make a nice, but kind of dull man any more interesting. Paul has a mind-numbing new job (a clever take on outsourcing), goes on awkward dates with single moms, and has an obnoxious neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), who parties hard, and is a black market opportunist in the world of the small.
Now, that’s one movie. A movie with interesting ideas, a movie that isn’t as quirky as it should be. I kept thinking that the first half would have been so much better if directed by, say, Spike Jones or Michel Gondry. Then the film introduces a new character, and veers in a different direction.
The fabulous Hong Chau (who stole her few scenes in the weird Inherent Vice), shows up to shake up Paul’s life and to shake up the film. In the same way that the first half of the film seemed to have the wrong director, the second half of the film seemed to be following the wrong person. Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran is a small refugee, who works as a housecleaner to the small rich people of Leisureland. Wherever you, there you are, it turns out, but it takes a token ethnic and/or female to show this to our boy Paul.
The second half of the film shows us that poverty still exists in the world of the small, as well as exploitation and opportunism. Oh, and end of the world cults. This second half reaches for potential almost-end-of-the-world dystopianism, but fails in the same way that the first (and differently toned) first half does. This should be good, I kept thinking. But it really isn’t.
The saving grace of the uneven Downsizing is Hong Chau, who is completely and utterly a more interesting character than Paul. There is so much about this film that I would do differently: Different director, some severe editing and rearranging, but most importantly, casting Hong Chau as the lead and following her story instead.